Behind the camera, Singaporean fine art photographer John Clang never fails to see the mundane and the banal with a fresh pair of eyes. Those around him — family, friends, and strangers are his frequent subjects. In fact, at least four of his photo series have been themed on his parents.
Even with the current uncertainty around the world and complex social issues unfolding, Clang says that his sole intention is to produce works that he deems of value, rather than to latch on to something sensational or on trend. He says, "I’m just not very much into seeking popular votes or getting approval from the public. I’m okay to just let my works speak for themselves quietly." He thinks of it as leaving clues for historians so that future generations can understand the thinking of the present.
Over more than 25 years of his career, Clang has left quite a trail. He has held exhibitions at venues such as Pékin Fine Arts Gallery, Hong Kong (2014) and FOST Gallery (2016), and also contributed his works to the permanent collections of the Singapore Art Museum and the National Museum of Singapore. In 2010, he was the first photographer to snag the Designer of the Year award at the President's Design Award, and in 2017, he made his first foray into film with Their Remaining Journey.
Shared memories between individuals is the foundation of human relations. When one person loses their memory, what happens to the relationship? - Zhou Yang
Shanghai-based Chinese fine art photographer Zhou Yang has an obsession with memory.
In 2010, she shot the series Fading, about her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, compiling it later into a photobook.
"Shared memories between individuals is the foundation of human relations. When one person loses their memory, what happens to the relationship?” she muses. “It was tough for us to accept that a loved one who was there all the time suddenly no longer recognised us. When editing the book, I put in some old photos and cloth patterns that Grandma designed when she was still working. I imagined that the memories were not lost, but she just forgot the “file names”. My book is an attempt to reconnect with Grandma’s memory.”
In recent years, she has been shooting scenes of China's classical gardens where the shared memories of generations of intellectuals lie locked. She seeks traces of fairy tales, and believes in the existence of some sort of spirit in the world. Perhaps fairy tales and historical epics speak of a time when people were purer and wiser, and of a time of honour and bravery. In fairy tales, coming back to life is a possibility, and good triumphs over evil. These give great comfort to the viewer, and it has become the basis of her new works.
But to make sure that I stayed focused on my art of photography, at the age of 16, I threw all my table tennis medals and paddles down the rubbish chute. - John Clang
Apart from being a means of expression, photography brings Clang and Zhou solace. For Clang, he empathises with his subjects and feels their mental struggles and societal pressures. Through observing those around him, he renews his belief that life can go on. Zhou uses photography as a response to the anxieties in her life. By understanding other people's sense of existence, she eases her own fears. She also hopes that her own works will bring some consolation to viewers — art is therapeutic for both the creator and viewer.
Of course, to both photographers, all one has to do to understand the core of fine art photography is start by asking questions about the work, or of oneself.
Wang Yiming (Wang): Artists are usually influenced by their childhoods, but neither of you come from families with strong artistic backgrounds. Looking back, was there any incident that started you on the path of becoming a photographer?
John Clang (Clang): I was a very individualistic teenager. Some of my secondary school teachers could have mistaken that for being rebellious. But my Chinese teacher, Ms Tan (谭老师), pulled me aside one day and had a good chat with me. She made me understand that I could express myself through art, and she even told me that there were art schools in Singapore if I was interested. From then on, I set out to become an artist. I chose photography as my medium because there was a Hong Kong drama on TV back then with Simon Yam in the lead role as a fine art photographer. At the time, I was the captain of the table tennis team in school, and we had been crowned national champions for three consecutive years. But to make sure that I stayed focused on my art of photography, at the age of 16, I threw all my table tennis medals and paddles down the rubbish chute.
Zhou Yang (Zhou): There was no “deciding” incident. My father is a photography buff, and when I was in primary school, sometimes at night he would turn the toilet into an impromptu darkroom to develop photographs. I got to stay up late, while being in charge of keeping an eye on the developing tray and watching the images slowly appear on the white paper. Subsequently in university, I studied broadcast journalism, which is related to images. At the time, we bought a digital camera and I started to shoot photos of old houses in Shanghai being demolished and things like that. After I graduated, I worked at a TV station for a year, but I found I still preferred working with still images like in photography, so I applied for a postgraduate degree in photojournalism in the UK. After I came back, I was a photo editor with a magazine for two years, while shooting some works on my own time. Later, I felt that working at the magazine was quite limiting, so I left and started working full-time on my own projects, as well as doing some photography-related writing, translation, and teaching.
Wang: Can you identify key themes that you have been interested in throughout your career? Have these themes changed, evolved, or led to new topics?
Clang: I have never been interested in topics that are sensational or grand. I am not even interested in creating works that reflect social issues. But I am fascinated by the people around me. Family, friends, strangers — these are the people I observe in my art, the ones who are real in my life. Possibly we share the same mental struggles and societal pressures as we evolve over time. By observing these people around me, even random strangers, I gain the strength and courage to go on, even when I feel mentally tired or down. Through them, I face my “shadow”; that’s a technical term for our unconscious, coined by psychiatrist Carl Jung. That’s how I get a deeper understanding of myself and others. I believe people are more alike than different. These are less popular topics but I do see how important they are and will be, especially to future historians.
By observing these people around me, even random strangers, I gain the strength and courage to go on, even when I feel mentally tired or down. Through them, I face my “shadow”. - John Clang
Zhou: I’ve always felt that my work centres around three themes: age, cultural heritage, and memory — perhaps because it is all about “remembering”. My interest in ageing started from watching my grandmother slowly lose her memory. That scared me. So for my graduation project in the UK, I chose to shoot portraits of the elderly there, hoping to see other possibilities. After I came back, I shot the series How to Grow Old as a continuation of that concept. In late 2010, I started shooting the series Fading, about my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease and how we as her family handled it. After my grandmother passed on, I collated the photos into a book, knowing that the hardest thing for us to accept was her memory loss.
It was not just about escaping the “real world”, whether in ancient or modern times; the more important thing was an escape from human mortality. - Zhou Yang on the meanings and spaces of gardens
Since 2015, I have been shooting cultural and architectural heritage, which is also a sort of shared memory. While I did not specifically go for the memory angle, perhaps subconsciously I was still thinking about memory. Also, the topic of death has also come up recently while I was shooting the Faërie series in the classical gardens in Jiangnan. As I understand, gardens are the domain of ghosts and spirits rather than the modern world; in the play The Peony Pavilion, it is where Du Liniang comes back to life.
In his essay “On Fairy-Stories”, British writer JRR Tolkien wrote that fairy tale writers create a secondary world that is not ruled by known natural laws, that works according to its own rules — a magical realm where the reader’s mind can enter. Gardens are another space, separate from the real world. In ancient times, the intellectuals who built gardens were also “creators” who constructed a three-dimensional secondary world where people could wander into and seek respite. It was not just about escaping the “real world”, whether in ancient or modern times; the more important thing was an escape from human mortality.
Wang: Do you think there is a so-called “Chinese-ness” in your work?
Clang: While my work does not show clear Chinese aesthetics, I think the “Chinese-ness” is still evident. It is a fact that I grew up in a traditional Chinese family, and consciously or not, my work does show that influence. But Singapore’s multiculturalism has also had a great influence on me. I am exposed to various cultures, and so my Chinese-ness may be less obvious to the viewer. Still, I think “Chinese-ness” is an important element in my work because it is my identity.
Zhou: I have never felt that there is anything particularly “Chinese” about my work. The fear of ageing seen in my earlier works is probably something universal. Now, in shooting the Jiangnan gardens, while the subject is itself a uniquely Chinese cultural heritage, one can also say that its builders — the ancient Chinese intellectuals — were a symbol of China’s elite culture. As part of the creative process, I will naturally become more interested in Chinese landscapes, as well as traditional arts such as its literature, people, and paintings, but my means of understanding the gardens is based on Tolkien’s theories. One might call it a cross-cultural view, rather than being directly immersed in the milieu of the ancient Chinese intellectuals. However, as I delve deeper into shooting the gardens, the yearning of the ancient Chinese intellectuals towards “birth” and their pursuit of a higher realm have probably seeped into my subconscious.
Wang: For most people, fine art photography is a relatively unfamiliar concept. How would you define a good fine art photographer or their work?
Clang: For me, it boils down to several factors. The intention, inventiveness, and resonance of the work matters more than its aesthetics. A good artwork goes far beyond being just a wall decoration — it allows us to consider our existence or a specific idea. It should have dimension and depth for us to explore beyond what’s on the surface. A fine art photographer considers all these factors, while a good photographer focuses on aesthetics. A good fine art photographer has the sensitivity to combine thoughts and aesthetics to make photographs that last, rather than those that are just a trend.
A good artwork goes far beyond being just a wall decoration — it allows us to consider our existence or a specific idea. - John Clang
Zhou: I feel that a good piece of fine art photography should transcend linguistic explanation. This is not to say that words are not important, but I want the appeal of a photograph to come first from the image itself. It should make me stop and look, and conjure up an indescribable, mysterious experience. Whether the photo is pre- or post-processed, it is able to make me believe that the scene in question once existed in a certain time and place. This sounds like outdated superstition, but I do still believe that people, objects, and places all have a so-called “essence” that can be captured in an image, and felt by the viewer.
This sounds like outdated superstition, but I do still believe that people, objects, and places all have a so-called “essence” that can be captured in an image, and felt by the viewer. - Zhou Yang
Wang: When we look at fashion photography, we often assess it based on whether it is beautiful or not. But for fine art photography, sometimes beauty feels quite removed. Is beauty something you focus on in your work?
Clang: I don’t particularly focus on beauty in my work. I think that when a work is too pretty, it overshadows the content. Having said that, good aesthetics is still important, because it has the power to draw in the audience to engage with the work. A poorly executed artwork will simply fall flat and be ignored regardless of the idea. But for most people, aesthetics is subjective.
Zhou: I think beauty is still important, but there are many layers to beauty. What I’m after is not necessarily a pretty image, but something that feels more mysterious, noble, or grand. Recently, my works have to do with the world of ghosts and spirits and fairy tales, and the feeling of sacredness needs to be evoked through beauty. For my work, beauty is a vital element.
Fine art photography requires audiences to be active in order for its potential to be unleashed. - John Clang
Wang: Around the globe, modern art galleries and museums are exhibiting more fine art photography than before. Both of you have a lot of experience with exhibitions, but for people with no idea of visual arts, how should they approach and interpret fine art photography? If a viewer says he or she does not understand your work, how would you respond? Do you think photographic works should come with explanatory notes?
Clang: I think fine art photography cannot be forced upon an audience. Theoretically speaking, audiences are either active or passive. Fine art photography requires audiences to be active in order for its potential to be unleashed. Active audiences are happy to challenge and analyse the work they are looking at. Sometimes, they even bring a fresh interpretation that goes beyond the creator’s original intention, and reach into the creator's subconscious, so to speak. Active audiences are ideal, but the majority of people are passive audiences who want all the information fed to them, like in a Hollywood film. If they have to put in effort to understand a photograph, they quickly say no. They don’t want to waste time trying to understand something that’s supposed to bring immediate pleasure to them. For example, it is always easier to watch Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan than Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. They are both good films, but the latter opens up the mind to analyse and appreciate matters that are more nuanced.
So, if someone looks at my work and says that they can’t understand it, I will still try to explain it in a way that elicits participation from them, instead of just having them accept what I say. I’m not against having explanatory text for works of art, but it should be written in a manner that allows further participation, rather than simply feeding the answers to the audience.
If viewers say they do not understand the photo, I might ask them what it means to understand it, and why they need to understand it? - Zhou Yang
Zhou: I think people can allow themselves to stop and look at a photo without rushing into trying to understand what it shows, what the photographer is trying to express, or the historical context, but just take time to look at it and feel whether there are any details that particularly interest them. Like Roland Barthes’ idea of the “punctum” or sting — each person may be moved by different details in a photograph, and they can start from there to draw links, to recall their own experiences, and try to understand why they are moved by that detail.
If viewers say they do not understand the photo, I might ask them what it means to understand it, and why they need to understand it? Getting everything clear might be a scientific approach, but I think we can afford to be a little fuzzy when it comes to art. I may not be able to explain many works by the photographers I like, but somehow, I can look at them forever. As for captions, I think it depends on the situation. In most cases, a few lines to introduce a series can help people understand what the photographer is trying to express, but there should also be some room for viewers to project their own emotions onto an image.
Wang: In this digital age where everyone has a mobile phone, anyone can take a photo anytime and share it and display it. What is your take on what makes a photographer professional and unique?
Clang: Now that everyone has a camera on their phone, everyone is a photographer. But does that make them a good photographer? Does that make them a fine art photographer? The camera is just a piece of equipment, like a pencil. Everyone with a pencil can write or draw, but does that mean they are a writer or an artist? The difference is obvious. Artists know what they want to create, while others try to imitate what they have seen before. Having said that, it is not surprising to see bad professional photographers and exceptionally great amateurs these days. The line is blurred even more when the audience cannot tell the difference, as social media is flooded every day with mediocre images.
Zhou: I think for photographers today, professionalism is not reflected in a perfect image, or a photo with a better composition or more accurate exposure than one gets with the average mobile phone, but in being able to spend more time to explore a topic and presenting it visually, that is, really finding threads of a story from the chaos of reality and getting the viewer to think. Also, the unique thing about photographers is that they pick moments where most people would not shoot. For instance, it can be a normal scene that everyone has seen but would not shoot, and through the photographer, it becomes “wonderful”. As Diane Arbus said, “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them.” In this age where everyone can take photos, what makes a photographer different is that they observe the world in a different way.
Related: A eulogy, intimate memories and a flawed piece of calligraphy | A tree can be like Buddha | What I Ching and the mangrove tree flowers tell us about life | Professor Littlewood and his love for Chinese opera | Wintersweet scents in Jiangnan | http://johnclang.com/